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Barenaked Ladies: A Flick of the Wrist

Barenaked Ladies: A Flick of the Wrist

It takes only a couple of listens to  Barenaked Ladies’ new studio release, `Silverball’ to realize there is a new maturity about Messer’s Ed Robertson, Tyler Stewart, Kevin Hearn and Jim Creeggan. Those quirky song lyrics, so much a part of their early success, have been replaced by a more sophisticated, mainstream production which may confound hard core fans yet at the same time sets the stage for a more progressive direction for the band.

Seated around a dining table at the  Soho House private members’ club in mid-town Toronto, guitarist –vocalist Ed Robertson and drummer-vocalist Tyler Stewart are meeting local media types to promote their 14th record release, which dropped April 2nd in advance of a major 36-date Last Summer On Earth U.S tour  with the Violent  Femmes and Men At Work front man, Colin Hay, before squeezing in a brief United Kingdom tour before returning to Canada this Fall to execute their `Silverball’ 20-date national tour (starting in Prince George BC October 19th and concluding November 21st in Ottawa) with Great Big Sea front man Alan Doyle as the opening act.

Produced by Gavin Brown (The Tragically Hip, Metric) who also helmed their 2013 release `Grinning Streak’, `Silverball’ (named after Robertson’s new affection for playing pinball) has been touted as pushing a new direction for the band while at the same time maintaining the same traits that have allowed their previous  releases to sell over 14 million copies.[quote]We’re not those young guys anymore who jumped around all over the place[/quote]

“We are the same guys, always striving to push ourselves lyrically and musically. It’s exciting to me when I hear a new record and I think, Wow! That’s new for us,” explained Robertson. “And yes, it’s still us; it’s unmistakeably the four of us playing together. That is what I love about making a new record, it’s like you channel into all the experiences you’ve had together and you push each other into new places and you end up with something new.”

“We’re not those young guys anymore who jumped around all over the place,” added Stewart. “He’s still in us someplace and that spirit gets unleashed on stage, there’s still that young desire to perform but we are also focused on the material. We don’t set any boundaries, we rarely say no…unless it’s a sax solo!”Barenaked Ladies

In talking about the maturity of `Silverball’, Robertson says he is conscious about being perceived as goofy because he is trying to evolve the band’s sound. “To do a record that’s a reaction to what people are saying about what you’re doing is even worse than doing a record that’s a reaction to what you’ve already done,” he explained. “For me’ it’s just like trying to write interesting things, trying to express things that are tossing around in my head and push the band into interesting places.”

Following the commercial and critical success of their 2013 `Grinning Streak’ release, Robertson immersed himself in what he describes as the most prolific and easy song writing phase he’d ever experienced, and armed with a raft of new material, wanted to get into the studio immediately.

“There was a thought within the band that we should be adventurous, push the envelope and find a different producer,” explained Robertson. “But we’d had such a great time recording ‘Grinning Streak’ with Gavin  (Brown) that I wanted to enjoy that experience again. It was like, we have a great bunch of songs, let’s be awesome”

The fact that the band worked so well with Brown became even more advantageous when it was discovered that the cancer which struck keyboardist Kevin Hearn during the recording of their highly-successful Stunt record in 1998, had returned and that he  needed to undergo medical treatment during the recording sessions.

“A big moment for me was when Kev came to me and said; `I have this issue (the return of his cancer symptoms),I have this procedure I have to have done,” said Robertson. “I felt so deflated, I said, `oh fuck Kev, could you be dealt another shitty hand’. And he said `Yeah, but I’ve been dealt some pretty good hands too’, which is a pretty great way to look at it. He’s had some shit situations he’s had to deal with. But for a quarter of a century, he’s been in a big rock band and he’s still making music.”

Hearn found therapy in writing and singing lead on “Tired of Fighting with You”, about his medical problems along with a second song, “Passcode” while Creeggan gets his lead vocal opportunity on a track called “Narrow Streets”. The album’s lead off single is titled “Say What You Want”.’

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Robertson agrees that the departure of Steven Page in February 2009 has allowed him to be the sole guiding lyricist over the band’s last three records. “There were a lot of positive things about the collaboration between Steven and I, the band got 20 years of great material because of it. Now for me, it’s just about confidence, it’s about seeing my ideas through on my own. It’s certainly liberating to be changing how you work and that’s what has been happening for me.”

Stewart also notes that the band as a whole had to tighten up to compensate for the loss of Page. “There’s one less person on stage so we all get to use a part of our arsenal, we hadn’t used before, “he noted. “I get to sing a lot more, Jim (Creeggan) creates a lot more vocal arrangements and both Jim and Kevin get to place more songs on the record.”

You only have to hear Barenaked Ladies’ `Big Bang Theory’ television theme song each week, to recognize the band has carved out a positive cultural image in the United States, something that stands them in good stead when they launch their latest U.S tour this week. An image which had been previously cultivated by a live appearance on the hit TV show 20210 (they performed in the Peach Pit) resulting in heartthrob cast member Jason Priestley agreeing to produce a video for “My Old Apartment” and shoot a documentary of the band touring in the U.S. And then there was a recent clip on the hit show “Community” in which the cast debated the band’s various merits.

“I think that is all due to our awesomeness,” mugs Robertson. “And we’ve been blessed with not having a negative cultural impact like Nickleback or Justin Bieber. But really, cultural caretakers like writers, directors and producers in TV and movies actually like  Barenaked Ladies; they are part of our audience”.

“For the past 20 years or so, all of our focus has been on the U.S market, there’s a lot of humans down there,” Robertson laughs. “We worked really hard down there in the 1990’s, we played all the colleges, opened for everybody, played every radio festival, visited every radio station. Every time we put a record out, we’ll do three tours down there compared to one tour in Canada and a tiny tour of the U.K. America has been our livelihood for the past two decades”.

It was an American record label president, Sire Records’ Seymour Stein, who gave the Toronto band their first break in 1992. “We were the band that was turned down by every record label in Canada,” reflected Robertson. “We were told we’d never have a career but our attitude was, we think we like what we’re doing so we’re going to keep on doing it.”

The band’s reaction was to release a cassette tape of a bunch of songs that included “Be My Yoko Ono and “If I had A Million Dollars” which they sold off stage and through local retailers. That tape became such a hot commodity that it ended up selling over 100,000 copies, being the only self-produced cassette ever to reach platinum sales status.

Canadian record labels may not have been interested but  Stein, head of Sire Records (which boasted Madonna and The Talking Heads) on its roster was sufficiently impressed to sign them to a six-record deal to his Reprise label.

“We had built this huge audience, we signed a huge record deal with Sire but we were still doing things on our own,” allowed Robertson. “I don’t think we met an A&R person until we released `Stunt’ in 1998. We were kids from Scarborough, still in shorts yet Seymour came to Toronto, signed us at the Scarborough Town Centre and said he was signing us to a six-record deal . We ended up selling millions of records (14 million at the last count) and that’s the beauty of trust. He saw something in us and we were lucky enough to stay together to make things come to fruition.”

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Starting with their debut record Gordon in 1992 (which included “If I Had A Million Dollars”, “Be My Yoko Ono, “Enid” and “Brian Wilson” ), the band rattled of  succession of hit records, culminating with their `Stunt’ release in 1998, which, powered by “One Week” , went to No 10 on the Billboard charts, and earned them two Grammy nominations.

After the band’s Reprise Record deal ended after their “Everything Is Everything” release in 2010, then manager, Terry McBride suggested they go back to being an indie band which they did with their own Desperation Records label. “Whether it was the right thing or not, we don’t know,” offered Stewart. “Whether the ethos of the business was changing and he was trying to be ahead of the curve, hard to say, but at the end of the day, we were in control of our own destiny.”

silverball
Vocalist/guitarist Ed Robertson

 Barenaked Ladies returned to Warner Music Canada for their last two records with Robertson lauding the move as a `coming home’ having been connected to the label for the past 20 years.

So with a full year’s worth of touring about to be executed, the biggest challenge now facing Barenaked Ladies is what songs to include in their set list. With over 300 songs to choose from, new material to be injected in to complement a raft of hits that are `must play’ songs, it’s a challenge that Stewart has spent hours pondering.

“A guy sent me a very extensive email saying like, okay, in this slot we can do one of these 15 songs and in this slot we can do one of 30 songs” informed Robertson. “I sent him a one word response, `Unsubscribe’!

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